Driven by two cellos and drums, the chamber-rock trio Rasputina has defied all expectations and evolved beyond its novelty-like beginnings about a decade ago to become a serious artistic force that nevertheless plays loosely and whimsically with its myriad musical and fashion influences--from Victorian and neo-Gothic wardrobes to alternative rock and musical theater.
The group's sixth full-length album, Oh Perilous World, released last month on Filthy Bonnet Records, is perhaps its most ambitious, described on its cover as no less than "selected excerpts from the finest show that never was" and an "original cast recording featuring Melora Creager and Jonathon TeBeest."
Founder, vocalist and lead cellist Creager made the recording with drummer TeBeest. Current second-chair cellist Sarah Bowman added occasional vocals, but she hadn't yet been fully incorporated into the band. Bowman has now signed on full-time, and the trio is headed to the Southwest for a triumphant return to Tucson on July 24.
The new album's loose narrative weaves a fascinating alternate history in which Mary Todd Lincoln is Queen of Florida, and her armies of blimps (blimps!) attack Pitcairn Island, where the son of Mutiny on the Bounty protagonist Fletcher Christian is an iconic resistance fighter.
This fanciful tale, though, is equally inspired by the frightening absurdity of contemporary history as it has unfolded around us since Sept. 11, 2001. For instance, "Choose Me for Champion" is primarily the translation of an Osama bin Laden speech, and the context emphasizes the scarily ridiculous nature of the lyrics. "Child Soldier Rebellion" refers to the tragic phenomenon of children's armies in African countries, while on "In Old Yellowcake," Creager alludes in her imagery to the destruction of Fallujah.
Although press releases have called Oh Perilous World Rasputina's answer to Sept. 11, Creager says it's not that simple.
"It's not directly related to it. Everywhere you look, people are talking about current politics, and this cycle of songs reflects that, but it's not that specific. People have put in reviews that Saddam Hussein is a character on the album, and he's not."
Developing a coherent narrative around pop songs and arrangements is nothing new to Creager, who grew up a fan of classic American musicals. "I just think some of that stuff is so intelligent, song-wise, and sophisticated in a storytelling sense," she says.
Her affection for song and dance was actually predetermined by her parents.
"My mother and father both loved musicals before they met, so after they got married, they had two copies of the soundtracks of The Music Man and My Fair Lady," she says.
Creager's no purist, either. She also likes rock musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Born and raised in Kansas, Creager is classically trained. She moved to New York City when she was 18 to attend the esteemed Parsons School of Design and study photography. She couldn't keep her hands off the cello, though.
She played in the band Ultra Vivid Scene and later played with Nirvana on that band's final tour, following its In Utero CD. Soon, the concept for Rasputina began to unfold in Creager's head.
"Conventional rock music with three boys playing guitars was pretty unappealing to me at that point. I played in some rock bands, and people reacted so strongly to the cello. They said it was their favorite instrument, and that was so wonderful.
"But I knew in most bands, they couldn't hear me over the guitars, so I wanted to make my own project. About playing the cello, though, in a way, it was just because that is what I knew how to play. I thought my thoughts about music were typical and not too odd; I just didn't realize the strangeness about cellos in a rock band."
Practically right out the gate, Rasputina got signed to a major label.
"When Columbia/Sony signed us, we didn't know anything about the music business. But that was the heady indie-rock days of the 1990s when the big labels were signing any band they could that sounded different. I guess in some ways, it was because of Nirvana, really."
Columbia released the first two Rasputina albums, Thanks for the Ether and How We Quit the Forest, after which the band took a short break so Creager could have a baby. When the band returned to the limelight, it was on an independent label, and Creager and her compatriots were more in control of their career than before.
"We figured out how to book ourselves, how to make everything happen," Creager says. "We realized we could make records on smaller budgets and actually make some money. Anything we do now, we do ourselves. Jonathon is our tour manager. I feel like we are kids again, back out there against the world."